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Solar Energy: its benefits, technology and cost efficiency Essay

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Man has needed and used energy at an increasing rate for his sustenance and well being ever since he came on the earth a few million years. Primitive man required energy primarily in the form of food. With the passage of time, men have discovered and used different energy resources for a lot of purpose; from the discovery of steam engine, to nuclear energy and fossil fuels. In the past few years, it has become obvious that fossil fuel resources are fast depleting and that the fossil fuel era is gradually coming to an end. This is particularly true for oil and natural gas. This is due to increasing rate of consumption and growing population that the need for an alternative energy options will be established – and one of these options is the Solar Energy. Solar Energy is a very large, inexhaustible source of energy. The power from the sun intercepted by the earth is approximately 1.8 x 1011 MW, which are many thousands of times larger than the present consumption rate on the earth of all commercial energy sources.Thus, in principle, solar energy could supply all the present and future energy needs of the world on a continuing basis. This makes it one of the most promising of the unconventional energy resources. In addition to its size, solar energy has two other factors in its favor. Firstly, unlike fossil fuels and nuclear power, it is an environmentally clean source of energy. Secondly, it is free and available in adequate quantities in almost all parts of the world where people live. However, there are many problems associated with its use. The main problem is that it is a dilute source of energy. Even in the hottest regions the solar radiation flux available rarely exceeds 1 kW/m2. These are low values from the point of view of technological utilizations. Consequently, large collecting areas are required in many applications and these results in excessive costs. A second problem associated with the use of solar energy is that its availability varies widely with time. The variation in availability occurs daily because of the day-night cycle and also seasonally because of the earth’s orbit around the sun. Thus, the real challenge in utilizing solar energy as an energy alternative is of an economic nature. One has to strive for the development of cheaper methods of collection and storage so that the large initial investments required at present in most applications are reduced (Sukhatme and Sukhatme).BenefitsThere are many uses for solar energy. Direct thermal applications involves the direct use of heat, resulting form the absorption of solar radiation, for space heating and cooling of  residences and other buildings, to provide hot-water for such buildings, and to provide heat for agricultural, industrial, and other processes that require only moderate temperatures (Brown). In some areas, whole neiborhoods are using solar energy provided through centralized solar schemes. Thousands of houses are provided with electricity from a solar-powered boiler. Photovoltaic cells, which directly convert sunlight to electric current, have been used for years in calculators, watches, space satellites remote communication and instrumentation systems. With further advances in microelectronics and semiconductors, photovoltaic can become competitive with conventional power sources by 2010, or maybe earlier (Balir).Global impactRenewable energies (biomass, wind energy, hydro, geothermal, combustible and renewable wastes, tide and wave energy and solar energy) are essential contributors to the energy supply portfolio as they contribute to world energy supply security, reducing dependency on fossil fuel resources, and provide opportunities for mitigating greenhouse gas. With worldwide adaptation of stricter environmental standards and guidelines for greenhouse gas emissions, it is becoming clear that renewable energy systems such as the solar energy will be credited for their inherent advantage in lowering emissions. Nevertheless, achieving substantial technology breakthroughs to improve cost-competitiveness remains a priority (“Renewables in Global Energy Supply”).The technologyIn 1981, American inventor Paul MacCready flew his Solar Challenger aircraft 175 miles (280 km) from France to England. The aircraft had more than 16,000 solar cells mounted on its wings. Seventeen years later, an American remote-controlled solar plane called Pathfinder set an altitude record of more than 78,740 feet. The first solar cars were driven in the 1980s, and they were soon joined by solar boats. In 1982, Hans Thoistrup drove his solar-powered car Quiet Achiever across Australia from Perth to Sydney. The first World Solar Challenge was held in 1987, with a field of 23 solar-powered cars. In 2001, an experimental UAV (uninhabited aerial vehicle, or remote-controlled aircraft) from the United States set a world record by reaching height of 96,864 feet (Morris).Moreover, there are also three types of concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies that support electricity production based on thermodynamic processes: parabolic troughs, parabolic dishes and solar central receivers. The cost of power generated with these up-to-date technologies is between USD 0.10/kWh and USD 0.15/kWh. Current efforts concentrate on parabolic trough technology. To achieve progress, much larger resources are needed than that is currently offered in public programmes. Optional conditions for CSP are in arid or semi-arid climate, limiting its usefulness to southern Europe, north and southern Africa, the Middle East, western India, western Australia, the Andean Plateau, north-eastern Brazil, northern Mexico and the US Southwest  (“Renewables in Global Energy Supply”).Cost efficiencySolar energy obviously has tremendous potential because the energy is free. Unfortunately, the systems required to harness that energy is not free. In fact, the cost of these systems in past years has kept solar energy in the experimental and trail stages. Now the cost of energy has risen dramatically, however, the comparative cost of solar energy systems has become more realistic. The fact that the energy source itself is both infinite and pollution-free is two additional positive factors. Engineering feasibility studies of solar energy systems can be performed by qualified consultants, who can select equipment for analysis, estimate costs, and predict annual performance.Because the initial investment required to install one of these systems is significantly higher that that required for conventional system, special care is necessary to ensure that life-style cost economics are determined accurately (Landsberg and Stewart). At Cholla Campground, a US Forest Service facility near Phoenix AZ, landscape architect Kim Vander Hoek and her colleagues saved an estimated $435,000 in upfront costs by using solar power for everything: lights, water pumping and purification, and even a power hookup for the campground host’s motor home (Thompson and Sorvig).The Department of Energy (DOE) has been trying to encourage the use of solar energy by power companies, industry, and home builders and most of the support has been given in the form of technical assistance. It funds programs that learn how to apply solar energy to meet power needs. In 1997, the DOE announced the Million Solar Roofs Initiative or MSRI, a program intended to encourage installation of solar energy systems on one million federal buildings by the year 2010. By coordinating the efforts of various federal, state, local, utility, financial, and industry groups toward that goal. The MSRI is intended to be a facilitator with clout. The federal government can coordinate such an extensive project more easily than any other single source.The MSRI would also create about 70,000 additional high-tech jobs resulting from increased demand for photovoltaic, solar hot water and related solar energy systems and trying to compete in the world market. MSRI system must comply with the National Electric Code (NEC), Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC) standards.  Federal, states, local governments and many manufacturers use rebates to encourage people buy and install solar power. Moreover, the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council developed and maintain the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE) which includes financial incentives, investment, and awareness programs; and rules, regulations, and policies. More specifically, financial incentives to New York State residents include information on 1) Green Building Tax Credit Program 2) Solar Electric Generating Tax Credit 3) Solar and Wind Energy Systems Exemption 4) Renewable R&D Grant Program 5) Energy $mart Loan Program 6) Residential Photovoltaics Program 7) Long Island Solar Pioneer Program (Ramsey).The National Aeronautics and Space Administrations Space Solar System (SSP) Exploratory Research and Technology (SERT) program was charged to develop technologies needed to provide cost-competitive ground baseload electrical power form space-based energy converters. In addition, during its first year tenure, the SERT program was also expected to provide a roadmap of research and technology investment to enhance other space, military, and commercial applications such as satellite operating with improved power supplies, free-flying technology platforms, space propulsion technology, and techniques for planetary surface exploration (National Research Council (U. S.)). Consumer demand for solar energy technology is rising, but remains a small portion of the overall energy portfolio.With solar energy and the other renewable energy sources such as biomass, geothermal and wind energy, there would be a promising future energy technology to use as an alternative to fossil fuels; the answer to greenhouse effect and the threat to fossil fuel monopoly; a source of energy that is environment-friendly and cost efficient. A technology geared towards better quality of life for the whole mankind.

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